NATO has heeded the pleas of allies and will now patrol and monitor the sea between Turkey and Greece to deter human smugglers from bringing migrants and refugees to Europe. A NATO official said ships and aircraft will start policing the Aegean almost immediately.
This is the first time NATO has officially interceded in the migrant crisis, after calls by Greece, Germany, and Turkey for help in curtailing the flood of people streaming across their borders. More than 76,000 people have risked the crossing to Europe so far this year. Slightly more than 400 have died in the attempt. The vast majority (more than 70,000 people) are fleeing from Syria and other parts of the Middle East to Turkey and then to the islands off the coast of Greece. NATO will target those routes and amp up rescue efforts to prevent more deaths.
NATO officials stressed, however, that they are policing not the migrants but the traffickers, who have turned desperation into a booming business. “This is not about stopping or pushing back refugee boats,” assured Jens Stoltenberg, NATO secretary-general. The alliance will also monitor the border between Turkey and Syria to gather intelligence on smugglers’ routes, reports the Times.
But NATO officials admit they put together the plan in haste, and they are working out many of the logistical details. The alliance must still figure out how to actually deal with refugees they encounter at sea. Right now the specific protocols are unclear, though a German defense minister said that rescued refugees would be returned to Turkey, now a temporary home to more than 2.5 million Syrian refugees.
In October, the European Union launched anti-smuggling operations in the Mediterranean. That mission focused on intercepting boats full of migrants embarking from the coast of Africa — mostly Libya — and bound for Italy. But the center of the humanitarian crisis, if measured by nothing more than the sheer mass of people, is the Turkey-to-Greece route.
NATO steps in at a moment when the crisis in Syria seems to be getting worse. As many as 60,000 people have fled Aleppo in the past week as Russia ramped up air strikes in support of Bashar al-Assad’s government forces. Most rushed to the border with Turkey, and some tens of thousands were stranded there over the weekend. Turkey has said it will open its door to them, but cautioned that in doing so it’s effectively allowing Bashar’s forces to purge Syria of opposition. “Every refugee that we accept helps their ethnic cleansing policy,” Turkish prime minister Ahmet Davutoglu warned.
Those Russian air strikes also derailed peace talks on Syria before they ever really began. United Nations discussions in Geneva are supposed to resume February 25, after many previous delays. But as a besieged Syria further unravels, so fades the prospect of any sort of real accord.